Published on Jul 3, 2011 by Luke Hunt
BOMBORRA IMAGES — A photo feature by Luke Hunt
By LUKE HUNT / Phnom Penh
In a courtroom on the flooded outskirts of Phnom Penh, a full bench of Cambodian and International judges has retired to consider its verdict in a controversial war crimes trial designed to find some kind of justice for about two million people who perished here under the maniacal rule of the Khmer Rouge.
Underpinning their decision is 212 days of testimony from 92 people and thousands of documents which the prosecution insists proves beyond doubt that former Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, 87, and the former head of state Khieu Samphan, 82, deserve to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
Co-Prosecutor Will Smith was calculating in his closing arguments describing the pair as liars whose treatment of fellow Cambodians was akin to “germs and rotten flesh that had to be shed”.
He cited telegrams sent to Pol Pot’s headquarters offering routine accounts of the atrocities that would culminate in the deaths of between 1.7 million and 2.2 million people, according to court estimates. About 800,000 people are thought to have died violently.
There were no exceptions. Nuon Chea even once declined to intervene on behalf of his own nieces Lach Vary and Lach Dara – two Chinese trained doctors who worked for the Kampuchean health ministry and along with their husbands were dispatched to S-21.
The trial of both men in Case 002 has been divided up into smaller hearings at the Extraordinary Chambers for the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC). In the first trial, Case 001, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who ran the S-21 torture and extermination centre, was jailed for life.
The current trial, 002/01 focuses on crimes against humanity and the forced evacuation of cities and towns immediately after the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country on April 17, 1975.
Thousands died in the initial weeks. Hospitalized patients, like women who had just given birth, were marched alongside the entire population out of the capital and into the countryside. Those once loyal to the previous Lon Nol regime were earmarked for killing, or as Smith put it, these were “processed deaths that were well planned, managed and disciplined”.
Up to 800 people could be clubbed in a day.
Smith also cited minutes from meetings of the all-important Standing Committee which approved the evacuation without adequate food, water and medicine.
“It’s a crime against humanity to send millions of people out into the hot countryside, to walk for days, weeks, sometimes months without any organized transportation or any provision of food, water or medical assistance,” Smith said.
New People, as those from the cities and towns became known, were forced to live with Old People from the villages. Marriages were enforced en-masse between strangers, pretty young girls were given as trophy brides to favored cadre and troops who had been handicapped in combat and Muslims were forced to marry non-Muslims. Women who denied their husbands conjugal rights were killed.
Schools were closed, all forms of traditional and modern art was banished, alongside money and religion. All vestiges of Cambodian life came to end as Pol Pot and his ultra-Moaists initiated polices to establish an agrarian utopia and wind the clock back to Year Zero.
Significant was construction of a massive airstrip the Khmer Rouge built for Chinese strategic purposes. As many as 30,000 people are believed to have died at the site in central Cambodia. Suicides were common. Laborers chanced their luck with poisons or by leaping under a truck instead of carrying on.
Every member of the Standing Committee had visited the site. One witness testified how Khieu Samphan had urged them to work harder.
“Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan killed for power. They spilt blood for it. They brutalized and dehumanized their own people and kept spilling blood for power,” Smith said, adding both had ordered others to do “their very dirty work” for them.
Throughout both men stuck to a well-rehearsed defence strategy, accepted moral responsibility and even apologized to the victims for any suffering they might have endured during their rule.
But neither accepted responsibility for the deaths of a quarter of Cambodia’s population.
Nuon Chea blamed the in-coming Vietnamese alongside Vietnamese and American infiltrators for the deaths while Khieu Samphan argued he never wielded enough power within the Communist Party to be able to carry out such crimes.
The pair are the last survivors of the Khmer Rouge Standing Committee — that wrote and deployed government policy – and are allegedly among those most responsible for the atrocities. Ieng Sary a former foreign minister died in March while his wife, Ieng Thirith, a former minister for social affairs was diagnosed with dementia and ruled medically unfit for trial.
Prosecutors are demanding a maximum possible sentence of life imprisonment for both in a verdict that could be the last for the ECCC which has been shrouded by controversy ever since initial investigations began for Case 001 back in 2007.
Allegations of political interference by Prime Minister Hun Sen whose government has been slow to fund its half of the tribunal, jobs for the favored few and the tortuously slow pace of the proceedings have at times threatened to overshadow the main event taking place in the court room.
“I think the press has been worse than its total effect,” David Chandler, an academic and among the world’s foremost experts on the Khmer Rouge, said from Monash University in Melbourne. “The best thing about the ECCC is the mass of data that has accumulated, with no help from the government, about the Democratic Kampuchea era.”
Investigations have been launched in Case 002/02 that could lead to an indictment of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan on genocide charges. Trials are also in the offing for Meas Muth, Khmer Rouge navy commander in Case 003 and Prosecutors also want to try Im Chem a former district chief and deputy zone secretaries, Yim Tith and Aom An in Case 004.
However, given the funding shortfalls and comments from Hun Sen stating that the current trial would also be the last, any future hearings are doubtful. A paper by the Open Society Foundation, released this week, urged all involved with the court to display honest leadership and to respond appropriately to the evident constraints on time, funding and political support that the ECCC now faces.
Chandler, who was also called as an expert witness, said the legal process had been cumbersome. Nevertheless he was impressed by the foreign judges and prosecutors.
“I was impressed by the reach and depth of the material in the closing order for the second trial,” he said. “I think the thousands of ordinary of people who came to watch the trial came away with some sense that something was being done.”
More than 100,000 Cambodians have attended ECCC hearings, school curriculums now teach the Khmer Rouge period and television programs covering the tribunal have been a ratings success.
Those associated with the tribunal are fond of saying that parents are no longer afraid to talk to their children about the brutalities that happened here almost four decades ago, and that the cost of finding some kind of justice for Pol Pot’s victims – at under US$200 million to date — was less than the cost of a bridge spanning the Mekong River.
For those reasons alone the ECCC has its backers.
As for Pol Pot’s surviving henchmen, Chandler added: “I hope they both die in prison — where they belong.” A verdict is expected mid next year.
Luke Hunt can followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt